I bailed out of Far Cry 2 over the weekend, and I've spent the last couple of days trying to figure out why. I guess the short answer is that I stopped having fun...but that's a little too easy. I don't think a game must necessarily be "fun" to hold my interest. I wouldn't describe my experience with Fallout 3 as "fun," but the game drew me in and kept me there for all sorts of reasons I've already written about.
I so wanted to like Far Cry 2, and I was prepared to do whatever the game asked of me. I'm not a great lover of shooters, but I'll walk a mile for an ambitious game that tries to innovate. And let's face it, in the decade since Half-Life, the "big idea" designers have tended to gather around the shooter genre as a proving ground for their theories.
So I approached Far Cry 2 looking for certain things, and maybe that's part of my problem. Maybe I should have cleared my mind of preconceptions and jumped into this game with a take-whatever-comes mentality. But I couldn't. I knew about the designers' intentions because I heard them tell me. I was invested in the design goals that have now become buzz-phrases (emergent narrative, dynamic story architecture, etc.), and I believe these guys (Clint Hocking and Patrick Redding) are serious and sincere about moving narrative games forward. So I began Far Cry 2 geared up for a gaming experience framed by these ambitious goals, and maybe that's not fair.
I'm also aware that people whose opinions I respect tell me Far Cry 2 is a terrific game. Chris Remo calls it a "slow burn" and encourages players to stick with it long enough to allow the full measure of the game to emerge. Ben Abraham calls the game a masterpiece. Justin Keverne says Far Cry 2 evoked emotions he rarely associates with games. With these and other thoughtful critiques in mind, I walk away from Far Cry 2 assuming my negative response to the game is personal (how could it be otherwise, right?) rather than prescriptive or diagnostic.
All of which brings me back to my original question, why didn't I like this game? Here's the best I can offer: Far Cry 2 wants me to behave as I wish in a complex, ethically gray-area world of mercenaries, and it wants to endow my actions and choices with moral gravity and communicate these choices through gameplay. It establishes a rich environment within which all this action occurs and populates it with characters I must care about because nearly all of them either need my help or want to kill me. But the problem is, I don't. I just don't care. Even though I want to.
I don't care because I don't care about me, and by "me" I mean my avatar. No matter which mercenary I choose, the game offers me almost nothing to latch onto in terms of empathy or emotional attachment. I don't mind being a bad guy - in fact, I rather relish it in games - but Far Cry 2 puts me into situations that presume I'm making choices based on things the game never bothers to establish.
I suppose it could be argued that it's my job to supply all this information, but Far Cry 2 seems to land somewhere between the blank slate and fully-formed character models of avatar-design. I know too much to feel like I've created this character, but not enough to understand who he really is or why it should matter.
Maybe none of this is important. I can play the game like a heartless mercenary, collect diamonds, and kill whomever is in my way. But the narrative construction of the Far Cry 2 suggests that I'm supposed to care; I'm supposed to negotiate my way through a thicket of moral ambiguities, and this is ultimately supposed to produce meaning that I played a role in constructing.
This balance of player input and thematic content has been described by the designers as intentional and pivotal to the experience Far Cry 2 offers. As Redding puts it:
...I feel as though it's important to differentiate between the premise of the game, and the story which is ultimately the thing that unfolds as a result of player input. And to me the story is an output. And what we can say is we have a target for that output. We want the story to be about certain themes, and so what we try to do is pick a premise that supports that, and then also pick mechanics that support that.
Despite the sandbox freedom and open-ended gameplay (or, perhaps, because of them) Far Cry 2 is supposed to be about something that matters. Something with genuine, if malleable, thematic value. For me, it simply didn't happen. I didn't care about myself and, frankly, I didn't really care about anyone or anything else in the game either.
Did it happen for you? If so, have I missed something important or focused on the wrong things? I believe it's possible for us to learn how to appreciate things by better understanding them (if I didn't, I think I'd have to find another profession), and I detest the kind of arrogant dismissal that says "I hate this book/film/game. It sux because I didn't like it."
Far Cry 2 seems far too ambitious and extraordinary in ways I didn't elucidate in this post for me to dismiss it. I made a genuine effort to embrace it, but it wouldn't embrace me back. I've walked away from it, but I'm always up for another try.